New sitdotcoms with corporate sponsors are popping up all over the web and show that, when done well, this type of integrated advertising is better than any pre or post-roll.

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Two Sundays ago I was watching highlights from the latest Democratic presidential debate on ABCNews.com, but after viewing about two clips, I nearly gave up in frustration. The reason: between each brief highlight clip lasting no more than 2-3 minutes, I was forced to sit through the same minute-or-so-long ad about new drunk-driving regulations. Yeah I thought the ad itself was pretty uninformative, but what really annoyed me was that constant feeling of helplessness, being forced to sit through the same ad every few minutes, unable to click away, just to get to the next clip.

It all goes back to what Jamison wrote about earlier, that when we watch video on our computers, we’re usually “sitting up” as opposed to “leaning back” when watching TV, and what I take away most from this distinction is that we demand much more control over what we watch on the Internet and how we watch it. We may have multiple browser tabs open, we’re reading a description underneath the video while shuffling through user comments and sifting through related links, etc.

And this is why those ABC ads felt so intrusive; as if someone suddenly grabbed the keyboard and mouse out of my hands and was like, “Here, watch this, over and over again!” As if somehow ABC violated the unwritten Internet code: you never grab.

Which brings me to Mr. Robinson’s Driving School, a new sitdotcom sponsored by Volvo, and presented by MSN Entertainment, which stars Craig Robinson, probably best known for playing warehouse-worker Darryl on NBC’s ‘The Office.’

 

 

“Driving School” is just one of the many recent examples of advertisers using innovative ways to sell products using web 2.0 conventions, rather than relying on old-TV models like “commercial breaks” which seem even more intrusive on the Internet.

Craig Robinson plays “Mr. Robinson,” a dedicated driving instructor, who finds himself thrown into a competition (The Butler Tournament Magnificent) with his arch-nemesis, Swevin’ Merv Lerman, to win control over local hero Boyd Butler’s multi-million dollar driving academy. Episodes have high-production value, run about 5-minutes each, with a tone reminiscent of early Adam Sandler favorites, Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore, with a bit of My Name is Earl mixed in to please the Midwest crowds. I, for one, chuckled a bunch, if that means anything.

Yet like a lot of sitdotcoms I write about, what makes Driving School unique is not the show structure itself, but how it uses the Internet in an interesting way.  In this case how it’s basically a serialized Volvo commercial disguised as a scripted web comedy. What surprised me most about watching the show, was that even though I clearly saw the commercial strings of “Driving School,” I found the viewing experience much more seamless and enjoyable compared to watching those ABCNews videos. And that new Volvo car they’re trying to sell does seem pretty nice actually.

I admit that I did sense a difference in tone when the show switched into “selling” mode, cuts became even quicker and it just felt like I was watching a commercial. But since it featured familiar characters and the plot fit into a larger story, I didn’t mind much.

Robinson needs a new car if he wants to win the competition, so he goes to a car dealership, describing the car he’s looking for with focus-group-researched buzz words: “safe and reliable” “fast and nimble” “sporty and stylish” – and suddenly with a dramatic flash the Volvo C30 appears. “And it already has passenger-side pedals for a driving instructor just like you,” the salesman explains. Yeah, a bit hokey, but since it’s clear that Robinson doesn’t take himself so seriously, and that he’s clearly in on the hokey-ness, I found the whole thing rather amusing.

“Driving School” also employs a voicemail service, allowing viewers to call a real number and leave a message or question for Robinson, and one is played at the end of each episode. The element of interactivity is becoming a staple of sitdotcoms, and although this voicemail feature is not groundbreaking, it’s definitely welcome and makes us feel closer to the world of the show.

Many other companies have launched similar commercialized web series, American Eagle’s, “It’s a Mall World,” and Ford’s, “Where are the Joneses?just to name a few

These ventures all have a distinct product-placement feel, but since they don’t impede the flow of the show, as a viewer, I don’t much care.  It’s okay if there’s a few too many shots of those new American Eagle jeans or if the features of Ford’s ’08 class are explained in greater detail than you’d expect.  I don’t mind as long as I’m entertained. 

And for me, that’s the bottom line: we all know advertising is going to be on the web, so if we can make ads feel as little like ads as possible, perhaps by integrating them within something more substantial, like a scripted sitdotcom, maybe we can all get along?

It has to be better than watching those beef jerky ads over and over on sites like Superdeluxe and DotComedy, right? 

Maybe Jack Links jerky has already won because I remember the name and I’m writing about it, but maybe that also means that due to the repetitively annoying ads, the content has lost.  

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